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School days

School days

You may recall school PE with a warm fondness, conjuring up hot summer days on the athletics field, or duck diving for colourful bricks during swimming lessons with an enthusiastic class and friendly PE teacher – but some women’s memories are more about donning a pair of navy blue PE knickers and being forced to run cross country in the rain, only to then be made to share a shower block with the rest of the class.

A new report by the Institute of Youth Sport at Loughborough University has revealed that experiences from our school days may be the reason why girls are being put off sport and physical activity in general.

The report shows that girls across the country are not getting nearly enough exercise, with those locker-room experiences at school and a lack of enthusiasm for school sports to blame. The report shows that 51 per cent of girls have been put off fitness by their experiences of school PE.

Official statistics reveal that of all 14-year-old girls, only 12 per cent are reaching the recommended levels of exercise – which is half the number of boys the same age. This is isn’t down to a lack of enthusiasm for activity however, as 74 per cent of girls say they would like to be more active.

The report shows a number of reasons as to why girls are put off by school sports. One reason is that they don’t enjoy the particular types of activities on offer. Some boys say that they believe sporty girls aren’t particularly feminine. Many girls believe there are more opportunities for boys in school sport, and that they find it too competitive. The idea of getting sweaty is also somewhat unappealing for many girls.

This information comes from a study of 1,500 children of school age asking about their thoughts on fitness and sport. Half of the girls were put off sport by their school PE experiences.

Of the least active girls surveyed, 46 per cent of them said they didn’t like the activities they did in PE, compared to 26 per cent of the most active.

The gap between girls and boys widens as they go through the school years. From Year 4 of primary school, where girls and boys are doing similar levels of activity, it lessens in Year 6 to girls doing considerably less, and by Year 9, the gap has really grown.

Of those surveyed 43 per cent of girls thought there weren’t many sporting role models for girls specifically, and now experts agree that something must be done to promote school sports to more girls, and lessen the gender gap.

One suggestion is for the Government to step in and address the issue – including policies that keep children fit and active, engaging not just the naturally sporty children, but those who may not be overly keen on sport to begin with.

Some think that the responsibility lies with the schools themselves, and believes that they should be offering far more options in the way of activities to liven up lessons and make PE more exciting and appealing.

Some schools are making real efforts to spice up PE lessons for youngsters – and trying to target more sport at girls.

One school – Woodfarm High School – introduced a Bollywood Dance programme, which aimed to encourage inactive girls to engage with school PE and get involved in something that they enjoyed. 30 girls got involved in the classes, which then led to performances at a National PE Conference and the Festival of Bollywood Art. Other initiatives have included focusing more on setting up girls’ football lessons and promoting netball.

Girls who engage with school PE programmes are more likely to be confident both outwardly, and with their own appearance, having higher self esteem and performing better in other aspects of school life. The benefits of healthy living and exercise have been widely documented and it is important for schools to embrace the challenge of getting girls’ opinions of PE lessons to change for the better. Some believe that the fault of putting girls off sport doesn’t just lie with schools however, but with the media who portray women in an idealistic manner that doesn’t allow them to have a hair out of place – and which suggests the idea of a women breaking into a sweat is undesirable. Maybe too many airbrushed images are putting girls off getting active in PE lessons.

In an Olympic year it seems the perfect opportunity for both the Government and schools to make sure sport is encouraged with both sexes, and to make fitness and healthy living a more appealing subject for girls. It also brings an opportunity for the media to focus on some real sporting role models for girls – and to show the reality – that to look great, you need to sweat a bit first.